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A Prisoner’s Diary

By Ray Withnall

February 1945. We arrive in Ubon north-east Thailand and ordered to build an airstrip for the Japanese. We’ve been prisoners for 3 long barbaric years.

June. Work on the airstrip is going well. Not too demanding. Local Thais tell us the war in Europe is over.

July. A plane flew over the camp and dropped leaflets with news the allies invaded Japan. Is that really true? The guards are on edge. Next day when we’re ordered to dig trenches across the airstrip. Is it to stop our planes from landing, or have we dug our graves? We’re anxious.

Early August. The Japanese tell us we don’t need to work but they’re as confused as us. Some are friendly, all of them less demanding. Something is in the air.

15 August. Today we saw the guards in a panic burning papers. Rumours that the war is over spread through the camp.

18 August. We’ve been uneasy for the last 2 days. RSM McTavish ordered everyone onto the parade ground.  We were called to attention and Major Chida Sotomatsu, the camp commandant, made an announcement. It was translated:

‘The Greater East Asia war has ended. You must carry on as you have been for some time until your own people come and take you over. I, as camp commandant, wish to thank you all for the good work you have done for me in the group. Higher officials have given out certain orders and it is my wish that you all adhere to these orders in a soldierly manner. I am still responsible for you all until I can hand you over to your own people. Outside work will cease as from tomorrow. Inside work as far as the I.J.A. are concerned is also finished, but work will have to carry on as before for your own benefit. Do your work as exercise. Those of you who are fit must keep fit. Those who are sick must do their utmost to get fit as soon as possible.’

We are free!

24 August. We were stunned at first. We are free but stay in the camp. Local Thais generously bring us food and drink. They’re organising entertainment for us; cinema, dancing, sports, even horse racing. The Thai army spoke to RSM McTavish, but they couldn’t tell him when we will be leaving.

25 August. Colonel Toosey arrived this evening. We gave him a tremendous reception. He said he had been worried about us, but relaxed when he saw us in good shape.

27 August. British officer Major Smiley arrived early this morning. He tells us he’s been in Thailand since May training the Seri Thai resistance. When the Japanese surrendered, he came straight to Ubon. He stayed undercover in case of Japanese revenge attacks. His radio operator contacted HQ to requisition supplies. We need decent clothes. The Thais send in more food.

28 August. Colonel Toosey sent the 20 sick men back to Bangkok with the 4 Americans. No news of our departure. We are organising football with the local Ubon team. We now have a radio and listen to the BBC. We go into Ubon but back before curfew.

22 September. It’s been five frustrating weeks waiting to go home. But we are now on the move. The Australians and 250 of the British have gone. The rest of us go in 2 days. Feeling sorry for the hundreds of Dutch who can’t go home because of fighting in the Dutch East Indies.

(The Dutch are trained in firearms and tactics in anticipation of fighting the insurgents. They eventually leave Thailand in February 1946.)

On This Day

14th August 1945

  • A radio recording is made by Emperor Hirohito in which he states that the “war should end” and the Japanese people should expect to “bear the unbearable”.
  • The Kyūjō incident occurs, where some Japanese Officers, unsuccessfully, attempt to steal the Emperor’s recording to prevent it being broadcast in order to stop the surrender. They are unsuccessful and take their own lives as a result.
  • VJ Celebrations begin in New York City (surrender occurred noon 15th August 1945 Japan Standard Time / 23:00 14th August 1945 Eastern Daylight Time (New York)).
  • The Viet Minh begin an uprising, in what is now known as the August Revolution, against the French colonial rule in Vietnam.
  • General Douglas McArthur is made head of Occupation Forces within Japan

Liberation of Sime Road Camp Singapore – Freddy’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Changi/Sime Road camps, Singapore

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Freddy Bloom, young woman recently married to military doctor in Singapore before Allies surrendered. Freddy interned in Changi/ Sime Road while husband Philip was interned in Changi POW camp.

(source:  Freddy Bloom: Dear Philip – A Diary of Captivity Changi 1942-45, Epilogue to a diary). (The Bodley Head Ltd.) Used with kind permission of Ginny Kanka.

There never was an official notice that our war was over. Peace trickled in gradually. Some of our ‘hosts’ faded away. Those who stayed rarely appeared and one or two actually tried to ingratiate themselves with us. Red Cross stores were released. Letters that were held up were distributed. Then one beautiful day a small squad of super-men in red berets came to the camp. They were some of Mountbatten’s commandos. Each seemed ten feet tall, tanned, bursting with strength and unlike anything we had seen in years…….

We were told to stay where we were but this did not suit me. So one day in the last week of August Katherine (her friend) and I put on our best dresses that we had saved for just such an occasion. We crawled under the wire and out of the camp.

With studied ‘sang froid’ as if it was the most natural thing in the world we hailed a taxi and told him to drive us to Changi POW camp.

At Changi gates the man on duty, whose mouth had opened in disbelief when we appeared, controlled himself long enough to tell us the hospital was at the end of the avenue.

The long walk became memorable. Men in shorts were working or lounging everywhere. As we made our way, first one and then another would come up to us, look hard and then shake our hands saying ‘First white women in three and a half years’.

The first time it was touching. The second and third time just a little less so. After we had shaken hands for the umpteenth time it was hard to control our mirth. Each said exactly the same words in exactly the same way. We knew we must not let them down. Since we ‘were’ the first white women in three and a half years we had to behave appropriately but it was difficult to assess just what appropriate was. Not giggles for sure.

Now there I was standing at the end of Philip’s camp bed…. then he came in and put his arms round me. I buried my head in his chest and sobbed all over him……….

Liberation of Sime Road Camp Singapore – Mary’s Story

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Changi/Sime Road camps, Singapore

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Mary Thomas a young woman in Changi/Sime Road Camps Singapore

Interview with Dr. Bernice Archer and excerpt from her book (In the Shadow of the Rising Sun. Maruzen Asia 1983). Used with kind permission of Mary’s niece Margaret Thomas.

On the evening of 15th August 1945 an extraordinary rumour began to circulate in the camp. It concerned the collapse of Japan and some unheard-of catastrophe. We dared not trust the rumours, we had heard too many. However, the food fatigue brought our breakfast, not rice gruel this time but fried cakes of rice with a V for Victory stamped on each one… At the meeting in the afternoon we heard that Japan had actually surrendered and that there was a new weapon, the atom bomb, by which the surrender had been won. But inexpressibly relieved and delighted as we were to hear of victory at last, we could not help having a sense of awe and horror at the means of winning.

As the days went by our position remained ambiguous. The Japanese were obviously in an uncertain frame of mind but still in control of the camp.

We learned later that though Japan had capitulated General Itagaki, commanding in Malaya, had not decided whether to join in the surrender or to continue fighting on his own.

This continued for a fortnight. We only knew what his decision was when four British paratroops, Red Devils in berets and battledress suddenly appeared in camp.

The last ten days in the camp were so crowded with events and new sensations that they were almost exhausting. Visitors flocked into the camp. First there were POWs from Changi and other military camps. We had plenty of food chocolate distributed by the Red Cross and British sailors and bread baked by the cooks of H.M.S.Sussex and sent to the camp every day.

We had proper soap again, flannels, toothbrushes and combs. It was like recovering from an illness and having a perpetual Christmas party.

On the afternoon of 11 September we went to the Thanksgiving service at St Andrews Cathedral. That evening two friends and I had our first civilised meal for more than three and a half years, in the officers’ Mess of the Punjabi Regiment…. It was a wonderful evening partly from the sheer pleasure and excitement of actually dining out like civilised people again.

The evening after the surrender ceremony Lord Louis Mountbatten visited the camp to explain the difficulties which had delayed repatriation.

On Tuesday 18th September I left the camp with twenty – two other women and three children to go on board the Nieuw Holland. The journey home, our first real encounter with the outside word, was something which could never be forgotten.

We landed at Liverpool on 16th October in a fog

It took a long time after repatriation for a sort of amazement at people’s gentle manners and kindly ways to pass off. We marvelled at the way Britons had been hideously bombed and rationed and had borne for 6 exhausting years the burden of a tremendous war. We felt we had come back to a very wonderful nation.

Liberation of Sime Road Camp Singapore – Daphne and Jennifer’s Stories

Excerpts from internees’ recollections of liberation from Changi/Sime Road camps, Singapore

Composed by Dr Bernice Archer

Daphne Davidson a young mother in Changi and Sime Road internment camps

(Collected by the British Red Cross Museum)

It was not until 18th  August 1945 that the peace rumours could not be ignored.

On 28th liberator planes flew over the camp and dropped leaflets and on 30th the British parachutists arrived. Strangely enough my memories of the last days are clouded in a haze of happiness. I knew my husband was alive – so many wives were mourning for those who would never come back. The Burma Death railway took a hateful toll of our fighting men.

My husband and baby and I left Singapore for England, freedom and feeding. What the future held we did not know – it was enough to be together again.

Jennifer’s story

(Jennifer Martin, nee Davidson, Daphne’s daughter a young baby in Changi and Sime Road)

I remember playing in the garden of the Raffles Hotel where we were lodged while families were reunited and messages sent to relatives in the U.K. We were very fortunate my father had spent many months suffering the deprivation and disease while working on the Burmese Death railway but he was alive and came back to us. So many husbands and fathers did not return.

Soon we were on the ‘Monowai’ the first ship to leave for home. I remember staring in wonder at the cabin we were given and the sheets, smooth, clean and white on the bunks. At Port Said we docked and were taken to a large hanger with long tables covered in clothes and all the things we would need provided by the Red Cross. Everything from underwear to winter coats for men, women and children of all sizes. We were all kitted out for the winter weather ahead.

Liverpool on October 11th 1945, then the train to Edinburgh to meet my grandmother and aunt Rena, the delights of Scottish food, a house and garden, shops, Christmas, snow and snowballs.

VJ75 – Civillian Internees

By Dr Bernice Archer

Over 130,000 Allied civilians (an estimated 50,740 men, 41,895 women and 40,260 children), were interned in the Far East during World War 11, with the subsequent deaths of approximately 15,000.

The Japanese created hundreds of civilian internment camps in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, French Indo China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines, Burma, Singapore, Sumatra, Java, West Borneo, East Borneo, and the Celebes. The smallest, Pangkalpinang in Sumatra, held approximately four people. The largest, Tjihapit I in Java, held approximately 14,000. In Java and Sumatra, the men were separated from the women and children and, from approximately 1944 onwards, boys over ten years of age were transferred from the women’s camps to the men’s camps. In Java there were special camps for boys and the sick old men. In China, Hong Kong and the Philippines men, women and children shared the camp accommodation. Accommodation differed from area to area including schools, warehouses, university buildings, prisons, prison warders’ accommodation, houses or bamboo barracks.

Although the Japanese surrendered on 15th August 1945 liberation from the civilian internment camps differed widely. In February 1945 the American forces stormed the camp at Santo Tomas in Manila and liberated all the internees. (A vivid account of this from the perspective of an eight year old boy can be found in Rupert Wilkinson’s book, Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp –Life and Liberation at Santo Tomas, Manila in World War 11 (Macfarland & Company, Inc 2014).Others had to wait weeks or months after the Japanese surrender – it was November 1945 before the last group of women and children, in Aik Pamienke in Java, were liberated. Reaction to the Japanese surrender and liberation differed too.

Throughout the RFHG’s VJ75 webseries we will be posting many recollections of VJ Day and liberation from those that were civilian internees.